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US body abandons plans for new flammability standard

Science - Fire, burning furniture © pooka - Fotolia.comThe National Fire Protection Association in the US has voted to halt development of a new flammability standard for residential upholstered furniture. The vote came amid stakeholder concern around the toxicity of the flame retardant chemicals that may have been needed to meet it.

Since 2014, a technical committee and two task groups at the NFPA have been working to develop a method to evaluate upholstered residential furniture subjected to a flaming ignition source. They were responding to a “significant fire issue” posed by burning upholstered furniture, according to Christian Dubay, NFPA vice president and chief engineer.

But the organisation received “numerous comments in opposition” to the draft – NFPA 277. Among these, many raised concerns that its implementation could increase the use of flame retardant chemicals in the furniture.

The NFPA’s Standards Council voted to end development of the standard, citing a “fundamental lack of consensus on how to test and evaluate residential upholstered furniture flammability, exposed to a flaming ignition source.”

Standards driving flame retardant use

The NFPA develops codes and standards through an open, consensus-based process. Although its standards are voluntary, many are adopted by local governments or firms.

Its work on standard 277 came though there has been a move away from ‘open flame’ flammability standards in favour of ‘smoulder’ tests in recent years.

Prior to 2014, California had in place an open-flame test for upholstered furniture. Many manufacturers used added chemical flame retardants in furniture sold nationwide to meet this.

Amid concerns of the possible harmful effects to human health and the environment of exposure to the substances, Governor Jerry Brown approved a new standard in November 2013 – Technical Bulletin (TB) 117-2013. This replaced the open-flame test in the original TB 113 with a smoulder test, which could more readily be met without added flame retardants.

Following that change, many foam suppliers and furniture manufacturers began removing flame retardants from products. Several US states have since acted to ban or restrict the substances’ use in those applications.

Stakeholder opposition

The Polyurethane Foam Association is opposed to the standard. In comments to the NFPA, it said that, among other concerns, furniture assemblies would probably include the use of flame retardants to “score” well with NFPA 277.

And because some jurisdictions have restricted or prohibited them in furniture, “without the availability of such substances (either ethically or legally), it may be impossible for many furniture designs to achieve acceptable NFPA 277 performance,” it said.

Dr Donald Lucas, a retired Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory scientist who served on the NFPA 277 secondary task group, welcomed the decision to halt the standard’s development. “Too many questions remain about […] the health and environmental effects surrounding how flammability standards would be met to develop a meaningful method at this time,” he said.

And Bifma, a trade group for commercial furniture, said it supports existing ‘smoulder test’ flammability standards as “appropriate regulation”.

The Green Science Policy Institute (GPSI) – a longtime critic of flame retardant usage – also welcomed the decision.

But the NGO’s executive director, Arlene Blum, told Chemical Watch she is concerned that the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) may be considering adopting a similar standard.

“Historically, the largest driver of the addition of flame retardant chemicals to furniture in the US was the open-flame flammability testing required by California’s Technical Bulletin 117,” said Dr Blum. “I question why the [CPSC] is still considering such a standard.”

The CPSC is set to meet on 16 May to discuss furniture fire standards. The GSPI agrees with a coalition of petitioning furniture trade groups that the agency should adopt California’s updated TB 117-13 as the national standard.